As we head toward the upcoming Alberta election, two words give hope to political underdogs and strike fear into the hearts of the overdogs: minority government. Our province has never had a minority government—one where no party holds a majority of the legislative seats—but that hasn’t stopped people talking about one, election after election.
A minority government was a real possibility in 1993, when the Progressive Conservatives under Ralph Klein squeaked out a win over the Liberals, led by Laurence Decore. The PCs won a 51-seat majority to the Liberals’ 32, but the popular vote was something of a nailbiter—just 5 per cent separated the parties.
There was again speculation of a minority in 2012, when the Wildrose under Danielle Smith was nipping at the heels of Alison Redford’s PCs. Redford went on to win a majority thanks in part to Wildrose self-immolation—recall pastor Hunsperger and the “lake of fire”—in the campaign’s final days.
Late in the 2015 campaign Rachel Notley talked openly of a coalition government, when the race appeared to be a three-way affair with the PCs, Wildrose and NDP. “It would be absolutely irresponsible to not open the door to thoughtful discussions with all other parties that are elected after the election,” said Notley at the time. That campaign was so up in the air that during their televised debate the leaders ventured into the deliciously difficult issue of a possible minority government and whether they were willing to work with each other. Wildrose leader Brian Jean danced around the question. Liberal interim leader David Swann said he could never work with an “extreme” party like the Wildrose.
Predictably, incumbent premier and PC leader Jim Prentice said he was running to form a majority government. He added he was “fascinated” by Notley’s comments about the possibility of a coalition government—as if she were involved in some underhanded conspiracy.
But there’s nothing nefarious or illegal about minority governments. It’s all about the political math. In the Alberta legislature, where there are 87 seats, you need 44 seats to hold a majority. Let’s say your party gets 42 and a friendly party has four. Add them together and you’ve got enough to govern.
These agreements can be formal, where members of a smaller party are inducted in the new cabinet. Or the smaller party can agree to prop up the big party on a case-by-case basis. A handful of small-party members acting as political scaffolding for a governing party is usually as rickety as it sounds. The lifespan of minority governments in Canada is routinely measured in weeks or months.
But there’s nothing nefarious or illegal about minority governments. It’s all about the political math.
But they can also prove more durable than anticipated. After the 2017 BC election, the three-member Green Party caucus signed a confidence-and-supply pact with the 41-member NDP. The Greens agreed to support the NDP government on crucial matters to avoid the minority government collapsing at the first attack from the 43-member Liberal Party.
Thus have the BC New Democrats clung to power—with the Green Party tail often wagging the NDP dog, particularly on environmental issues, where Premier John Horgan has taken a hardline position against fellow NDPer Notley and her attempts to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline project.
New Brunswick found itself tossed into even more turbulent waters last September when the Liberals won 21 seats to the PCs’ 22 in a 49-member legislature. The Greens and the People’s Alliance (picture a Maritime Wildrose) each won three. After trying, and failing, to govern, the Liberals gave up and the PCs now form government, propped up by the People’s Alliance.
Minority governments might not typically last long but they can prove surprisingly inventive. Canada’s 1963 minority Liberal government under Lester Pearson forged agreements with the NDP to introduce the healthcare system, unveil a new flag and create the Canada Pension Plan.
As we approach Alberta’s provincial election, the big players aren’t talking about minority governments. They never do. They’d appear weak if they did. Based on public opinion polls, Jason Kenney and the UCP fully expect to defeat the NDP and form a large majority government. Notley, who as an underdog in 2015 was openly musing about a coalition government, is defiant now: “I don’t intend to not win the election.”
Neither will NDP officials talk openly about the possibility of a minority. But given the alternative, you have to think Notley and Co. would secretly be happy to emerge from the election with minority government status and a few opposition MLAs to partner with, perhaps from the Alberta Party or the Liberals.
Why not a minority? Nobody predicted an NDP victory last time. And look what happened. Campaigns matter. Campaigns have a way of taking us in new and unexplored directions. It happened in 2015. Why not again?
Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.